How to restore and repair an old, damaged photograph

Last week my Grandmother asked me if I could repair an old, damaged photograph she had of my father when he was a kid. I told her I would try, but couldn’t promise anything. I knew there would be a possibility the photo would be beyond my ability, or at least beyond my technology. Upon receiving the photo in the mail, my worst fear became a reality; this was going to be no easy task.

Photo Restoration

As you can see, this photo was so badly damaged that a good portion of his face had been ripped from the paper. This usually occurs when a wet photo has time to dry and stick to other photos it may be stacked with.

I’ve supplied a list of tips for separating photos that have been stuck together here:

  • Damaged photos for which you do not have negatives need to receive attention first. Once photos have stuck together or become moldy, it may not be possible to save them.
  • Handle wet or stuck photos carefully because surfaces may be fragile. Try not to touch the image surface with your
  • It is a good idea to take new photographs of all photos as soon as you can see a clear image just in case their condition worsens. Take new photos before and or after soaking (soaking explained below).
  • Remove photos stuck to mattes, glass, or frames, if possible, without causing too much damage. If the photo is really stuck, follow the soaking instructions below. Take a new photograph before you attempt to remove the stuck photo or soak it. Also, if the stuck photo is in good condition, it may be possible to scan it in the frame as is and then send a digital copy to a restorer such as Image Master for restoration.
  • If you have a number of photos stuck together, they can be soaked in slightly warm water. If the water becomes dirty, change it often. It could take about an hour to loosen them.
  • Wet photos may be rinsed in clean water, if need be, and sealed in a plastic garbage bag with a tie or a Ziploc-type plastic bag.
  • It is a good idea to place wax paper between each photo.
  • If a freezer is available, freeze the photos immediately. Later, the photos may be defrosted, separated, and air-dried.
  • If no freezer or refrigerator is available, rinse wet photos in clean water and dry them, face up, in a single layer on a clean surface such as a table, towel, or clean plastic laid out on the ground.
  • You will reduce the growth of mold and mildew by reducing humidity. Increase air flow with fans, open windows, air conditioners, and dehumidifiers.
  • Don’t dry the photos in direct sunlight.
  • You may want to add weights to the tips of each photo corner to help reduce curling.

How to Repair Damaged Photos

If the damage has already been done and you feel up to a challenge, here are some tips on repairing and restoring the photos using the methods I used. Keep in mind that unless you have an artistic eye and an ability to understand and see what the missing parts of a face should look like, don’t try to tackle a job like this, and always work from a copy of the original.

What you’ll need:

  1. A decent scanner. If you don’t have one, hit up your local Kinko’s or copy store.
  2. Any version of Photoshop.
  3. This isn’t necessary, but I used Alien Skin Exposure, which mimics actual film types and is a plug-in for Photoshop.

Step One: Scanning

Be sure to scan your photo at the highest resolution possible. I recommend, at the very least, you scan at 300dpi. The purpose for this is that you’ll be using other parts of the image to repair, and you can get unexpected results with lower quality (not to mention the fact that film resolution is a lot higher and you’ll have a loss in pixels. It’s likely, though, with small pictures that any loss in pixels won’t be noticed as long as you’re sure to scan at the highest possible DPI).

Make sure you clean any dust or fingerprints. Loose dust may be removed before scanning with compressed air, a soft paintbrush, or one of the optical quality dry cleaning cloths can be used for both dust and fingerprints.

Step Two: Color Correction

Photoshop Threshold

There are many ways to color correct in Photoshop. The one

I use most often is Threshold, which is found by creating a new adjustment layer.

  • To do so, create a new layer with the photo in it by selecting all (control-A), copy (control C), and paste (control V), then click on the little yin-yang symbol at the bottom of the layers palette and click on Threshold. This will bring up the threshold window and everything will look black and white.
  • Slide the little slider all the way to the left, and then slowly bring it back. The first black pixels that appear in the window are the darkest part of the image. Click ok when you first see them.
  • Now zoom in to these pixels and place a color sample marker in the middle of one of these black areas. The Color Sampler Tool can be found by holding down the Eye Dropper tool.
  • Once you’ve marked the dark area, you can now get rid of the Threshold layer by dragging it in to the trashcan located at the bottom of the layers palette. You’ll now be back to the normal view of the top layer, but your new sample marker stays visible.
  • Next repeat the steps for Threshold, but slide the slider to the right. This will be the lightest point in the image.
  • Sample that, throw the Threshold layer away, and it’s time to color correct.
  • Click Image>Adjustments>Curves to open the Curves palette.
  • Once in the Curves window, click on the Black Eyedropper tool and click within the dark area sample you made in the Threshold step. You may need to zoom in to get an accurate placement.
  • Do the same for the light sample, but obviously use the white Eyedropper within Curves. These steps will find black and white within your image and will help you correct your colors.

    Photoshop using threshold

Step Three: Repairing and Restoring

Start with the Clone Stamp Tool in Photoshop and set the mode to Darken. This clones pixels from one area and replaces all the pixels of another area that are too light. I used this tool in the right side of the forehead and parts of his hair. I made sure to use a soft edge brush of different sizes for this technique so the areas b

lended well.

Photoshop Darken Clone

In my particular case, I then focused my attention to the huge torn-out area in the middle of his face.

  • Here I used the Clone Stamp Tool with the mode set for normal. I used a large feathered brush and cloned along the jaw line. This allowed me to clone the area from dark to light along the jaw line and in to the area that’s missing, giving it a natural flow with the rest of the image that’s visible.

    Photoshop Clone Stamp Tool

  • As I work, I use different brush sizes and will use a lot of Undo’s (Control-Z) as I go along if I feel I made something that doesn’t look natural. You can also use the history palette to go back some steps.
  • Once you fill the torn-out area, you’ll need to go back in and fix trouble areas with the clone stamp to even out the shadow and light in areas so they fit with the rest of the image.

It’s important to have a good artistic eye, because an image as damaged as this will require you to create what’s not there; for instance, re-creating the right side of his mouth and lips. The great thing is, the left side is there so you can copy and paste that area, flip it horizontally, rotate it slightly, and place it where it would need to go. Then use the Clone Stamp to even out the edges. The background areas in this case were easy to restore and I wanted to restore the image back to a rectangle as it was without the paper frame, which had stuck to it.

You’ll notice that as you fix areas with a soft edge clone stamp, they’ll appear smoother than the rest of the image since this particular photo had a lot of grain in it. For this I simply clicked Filter>Noise>Add Noise and clicked the box in the bottom left that says Monochrome. I them adjusted my noise until it looked like it was close to the original.

At this point, I was happy with what I had done, but there were some areas where the color of his skin didn’t look right, it didn’t have a natural overall look to it. To fix this, I used Alien Skin Exposure. In Exposure I was able to mimic an old black and white photograph while also adding a natural sepia tone. For this I used the setting Sepia – Mid Band Split. I actually couldn’t believe I was able to do the job I did on this restoration considering it’s really my first time with an image this bad.

Photo Restoration

Step Four: Printing

This part’s easy. Send it to White House Custom Color for all your printing needs. A photographer friend told me about them a couple months ago and I’ve received such beautiful prints from them at unbelievable prices. For about half the price of local printers for the same product, I can have this photo printed on metallic paper and have it sent back within two business days. The best part is, your photos will be processed by real photographers, not some lab clerk at the local drugstore who doesn’t care about quality.

Good luck to all, and happy repairing!

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11:37 am Design

16 Responses

  1. czecho Says:

    This is great tutorial, have some old photos I can try it on…Thanks…

  2. buttface kill'a Says:

    omg cool!!!

  3. Sunshine8 Says:

    Many thanks for your advise. I’ve not actually used threshold before.Another way of cloning is to use the lasso, I find this much better for large areas as the cloning can create unwanted repetitive marks. Also, sometimes it can be hard to get a decent colour and i find desaturating the whole photo sometimes a useful hint. Then i can add my own colour using mode, adjustments and colour.
    Don’t you just love Photoshop?! I do..

  4. Erica DeWolf Says:

    Great restoration. You did a great job!

  5. Derek Says:

    Very informative.

    Unleash the powers of PhotoShop!!!


  6. Tyler Says:

    I see your point, Sunshine8. That’s why I repeatedly clone from different areas of a similar shade using different sized clone brushes. Thanks for the desaturation tips. Yes, I do love Photoshop.

  7. judy palmer Says:

    I’m not sure who you are, but would love it if you would contact me. My 90-year old mother died recently and I have a beautiful portrait of her (in jpeg format) that the original has what looks like mildew-type damage. I read your very informative “how to” with photoshop and it looks like it could be beyond my expertise! Would like your opinion of whether the picture could be helped with your technique. Thank you so much. Judy

  8. nanajas Says:

    Good tutorial. Have you any info on cleaning old 35mm transparencies

  9. Jean Says:

    I have some old family pictures from the yr 1800 that are moldy. how is the best way to remove mold. thank you in advance

  10. VICTOR Says:


  11. Mohammad Zakir Lasker Says:

    your article is very helpful to me.It’s a very good tutorial.

    Thank you ever so much.

  12. Liz Says:

    Can any one tell me how to remove ink stains from pictures that were glued together and the ink on the back of one adhered to the front of antoher picture? I could probably used photoshop or some version there of, but it seems like it is going to take a lot of time - is there a simpler way?

  13. priti sharma Says:

    hi nice information,i have 1 question, what is the combinitations of black&white and coloured photographs? and what materials used in old photos like dies and colours?

  14. project 5: Fixing and playing with photo retouching | Viscom Project Blog Says:

    [...] [...]

  15. james Says:

    To remove ink, try PEC-12 photo ink remover. Works every time.

  16. Ridoy Says:

    my pitcher old and demej repair my photo

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